A country divided: a psychological perspective on ‘Brexit’

As many of us struggle to come to terms with the outcome of the EU Referendum and the widespread feeling of uncertainty it provokes, as a nation we are forced to reflect: why does our country appear to be dividing rather than coming together as it should in a time of crisis? It is quite apparent that the UK is now in need of a wise and responsible leader to successfully negotiate a secure future for our country.

Our current stream of political leaders continues to threaten our ‘safety and security needs’ through irresponsible game-playing and our country’s psychological well-being suffers as a direct result. Throughout the UK, many of us have witnessed an acute rise in levels of anger, confusion, frustration, disappointment, anxiousness and destructive behaviour after our recent decision to leave the EU. These emotions indicate a significantly increased stress response to recent events accompanied by a feeling of grief.

The lack of clear guidance from our leaders leaves our country and other European countries at a loss, creating fear and instability. Very much like parental figures who ‘abuse their power’ by consistently place their child in harm’s way, consequentially destroying trust and safety within the relationship. As David Cameron, Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage jump ship and evade personal responsibility for their actions, it is now left up to us, the collective citizens of this country, to make a difference in how we move forward.



From the start of the EU Referendum campaign, our parent political figures have failed to meet the needs of their child, our nation, by presenting ‘black and white’ options that eliminate any middle ground for diplomacy or negotiation. Psychologists call this process ‘splitting’. This has taken place alongside the divisive strategy we’ve come more accustomed to know as ‘divide and conquer’. This is a tactic used by Gove and Johnson, unsuccessfully on this occasion, to raise their political profile at the expense of our relationship with Europe.

  • Splitting (also called black-and-white thinking or all-or-nothing thinking) is the failure in a person’s thinking to bring together the dichotomy of both positive and negative qualities of the self and others into a cohesive, realistic whole. It is a common defence mechanism used by many people.[1] The individual tends to think in extremes (i.e., an individual’s actions and motivations are all good or all bad with no middle ground).


‘Black and white’ thinking usually instigates a ‘black and white’ response, whereby a person or situation becomes either positive or negative, good or bad, clever or stupid, wrong or right. This type of thinking and behaviour fails to introduce a ‘grey area’ of thinking or negotiation. We were asked to make a ‘LEAVE’ or ‘REMAIN’ vote in the EU referendum: a perfect example of black and white options, designed by black and white leadership, to purposefully instigate a black and white response. Given this, should we really be shocked by the end result? Or be surprised that UK citizens have responded to the outcome with such extreme emotions and behaviours? As a nation, we have been conditioned to vote and respond in equally divisive black and white thinking which we have all come to know over the years as our democratic system. Perhaps this is a time where we need to review the processes of democracy itself. It is in our hands to determine our future, not the hands of our political figures. Petitioning, protesting and writing to our MPs are all within our capability. We can certainly all learn from this experience how we choose in the future to challenge parliament on important political decisions.

The Vote


The question most frequently asked was ‘should there be a second EU referendum?’. My response to this after some deliberation was. ‘No’. And before you stop reading, this is the reasoning behind my answer.

Whether we like it or not, the outcome of the vote was to leave the European Union. And this outcome accurately reflects what this country voted for at the time. Should this have been put to a democratic vote without more negotiation between Parliament and the European Union taking place first? It’s clearly debatable. And the nation is more than entitled to challenge the decision should they wish.

But why did the vote go this way?

When many British coal mining towns and factories were abolished in the 1970s and 1980s, it created significant financial pressure on smaller communities within the UK. These smaller communities experienced considerable uncertainty, powerlessness and fear. In many respects, they have never ever fully recovered and, as a consequence, scaremongering centring on immigration and media hype have exacerbated their fears that jobs are going to be even further threatened in the future. These are communities that cosmopolitan city dwellers who have profited from the EU rarely see as they have remained neglected by the government and the media for many years. Communities tend to be conditioned by their elders. I feel a lot of the younger voters in these communities were representative of a younger generation being led by an older belief system, history and community ethos.

The EU Referendum suddenly provided a media platform and a voice for these unseen communities and they responded. The motivation to vote when you feel desperate is far greater than the motivation to vote when you are living comfortably. To ask for a second EU Referendum would be to deny the voice of communities who are seeking support for the government and their country. The irony of this whole situation is that a subconscious ‘transference’ has taken place, where the whole country is now experiencing the uncertainty, powerlessness and financial insecurity these smaller communities have felt for years. The bigger question now is how to we come together as a country and take the United Kingdom into consideration as a whole and not as a group of separate entities.


The divide between the European Union and the United Kingdom has exposed covert racism within our country. It has provided racists with a media platform to vocalise discriminatory views towards other cultures, both within and outside the United Kingdom. This has re-highlighted a lack of education around diversity that must be addressed. Since this imminently threatens many citizens safety and security needs, I’m surprised why zero tolerance policies or adequate boundaries are not currently mandated. The topic of immigration in this country has fuelled racism by the propaganda, speculation and scaremongering tactics that have surrounded it: an key part of the ‘divide and conquer’ strategy which is intended to incite fear and create further division.

  • Divide and rule (or divide and conquer, from Latin dīvide et īmpera) in politics and sociology is gaining and maintaining power by breaking up larger concentrations of power into pieces that individually have less power than the one implementing the strategy. The concept refers to a strategy that breaks up existing power structures, and especially prevents smaller power groups from linking up, causing rivalries and fomenting discord among the people (Cite https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Divide_and_rule)

Fight, flight or freeze

As therapists, our job is to successfully mediate with regards to a person’s psychological and emotional well-being without causing undue stress. It is stress that causes cognitive distortions: fight, flight or freeze responses where no productive communication can take place due to the increase of a stress hormones ‘cortisol’ and ‘adrenalin’ in the body. Cognitive distortions and stress merely serve to introduce ego defence mechanisms, hyper-vigilance, hyper-arousal and black and white thinking, all of which break down effective communication and remove any middle ground for diplomatic. In more hyper-vigilant, hyper-aroused states, we either retreat to a place of safety, remain silent, or fight to regain a feeling of control. It is here where ego defence mechanisms such as ‘splitting’ usually take place. Without successful mediation, it is no surprise that we find ourselves in such great uncertainty. Right now it seems as we have all been left without secure parental figures that can responsibly lead and guide us forward, whilst meeting our security and safety needs.


Security and safety needs

We are all born into this world looking for our safety and security needs to be fulfilled by a ‘secure attachment figure’ or ‘care-giver’ as our early survival depends on it. In many respects this never really changes throughout our lives. Oxytocin is a hormone produced when we feel most safe, loved, calm and secure within our environment or relationship with another person and is essential for the ongoing development of trust, love, bonding and connection. Oxytocin is an antidote to the stress hormone cortisol, underlining its importance within society today. Maslow’s hierarchy of needs suggests:

‘Safety and security needs are about keeping us safe from harm. These needs include shelter, job security, health, and safe environments. If a person does not feel safe in an environment, they will seek to find safety before they attempt to meet any higher level needs. These security needs are important for survival, but they are not as important as the basic physiological needs. Examples of safety and security needs: safety, shelter, security, law & order, employment, health, stability, etc.’cite http://thepeakperformancecenter.com/educational-learning/learning/principles-of-learning/maslows-hierarchy-needs/

As law and order are part of our safety needs, politicians need to assume full responsibility for the final decision they make following a democratic vote, and quickly follow this up with a steadfast plan of action. If full responsibility is not taken higher up the chain of command, the responsibility is merely transferred back down the chain for us citizens to squabble over. In the long run this will only serve to create further stress, anarchy, confusion, uncertainty and division within our country.

The five stages of grief


As our country attempts to recover from the shock and aftermath of Brexit, some of us unknowingly enter into the five stages of a grieving process.

Shock, numbness, denial, anger, fear, sadness, disappointment, loss, bargaining are all common emotions that are experienced during this transition of acceptance. Voicing how you feel is as equally important to being able to listen to someone else going through the same process. This type of identification is very powerful but needs to take place in a non-judgemental, empathic environment.

We all come through a grieving process in the end and, as we slowly readjust, it is essential that we go through it together as a community since this has always shown to be far more beneficial for our emotional well-being. It will help us to feel more connected and united as a country, and is something that we are all in control of outside of any political agenda.


An increase in our cortisol, stress and adrenalin levels is a key trigger to divisive, knee-jerk responses within our society today. The role of oxytocin plays a pivotal role in the process of reconnecting, rebuilding trust and feeling safe. If we all took certain daily actions that encouraged the production of oxytocin within ourselves and others, we would see divisive behaviour and fear lessen within our society. Here are some ways to increase the flow of oxytocin:

  • Providing reassurance

  • Coming together as a community

  • Affection

  • Laughter

  • Compassion

  • Music

  • Empathy

  • Asking for help

  • Listening to another

  • Hugging

  • Selfless deeds and actions

  • Walking in nature

  • Soothing environments

  • Keeping structure and routine

  • Deep breathing


In a world that sometimes moves out of our control, it is important to remember positive actions we can take and have some sense of control over. How we choose to implement these more positive behaviours into our daily lives is down to us. ‘Be the change you wish to see in the world’ has some resonance here and seems fitting given our current set of circumstances.

As our nation seeks a ‘secure attachment figure’ it is now for us to choose carefully who our next political leaders will be in the future. We need to ask who is responsible and wise enough to provide the direction and security we need and, who has genuinely got our best interests at heart.


jonathan hoban